Locked out but among friends in Dutch Harbor

by Guest Blogger

July 3, 2006

The following posting is the first from oceans campaigner John, who is onboard as Greenpeace begins our 2006 tour of the Bering Sea… 

Yesterday, George and I held an open meeting with the communities of Dutch Harbor and Unalaska.  Located in the middle of the Aleutian Islands, Dutch is the largest fishing port in the USA and home to the factory pollock trawlers that supply fish sticks and fake crab meat to consumers all over the world.  It’s a stunningly beautiful location – volcanic islands with snowy peaks and emerald green hills surrounding rocky bays and deepwater harbors.  There were wildflowers everywhere, along with puffins, foxes, and something I was completely unprepared for: bald eagles by the dozens.

But Dutch is a company town, and while we knew there were quite a few people around who were concerned about overfishing and localized depletion, we weren’t sure if there would be any who would come out to a meeting with Greenpeace to talk about it in public.  The pollock guys are like the ExxonMobil of the fishing industry, spending enormous amounts of money promoting junk science to shift the blame from fishing to pollution, climate change, or even killer whales.  For over twenty years, it has been a dangerous thing to criticize the pollock industry.  Reputations have been attacked, careers have been destroyed, research funding has been taken away, and scientific conferences have been cancelled.

Even our humble expedition to the Bering Sea this year has not escaped the industry’s attention: caving in to pressure from people in Dutch Harbor who said they would not service a Greenpeace vessel, the owner pulled the plug on our contract.  Of course, we are not going to give in that easily, so we scrambled and found a boat that may turn out to be even better (and cheaper).

George and I are both pretty low key, up-beat guys, but all this industry bullying had us wondering what to expect when we showed up at the Museum of the Aleutians to hold the meeting.  When we discovered that the doors were locked, we just laughed and resolved to have the meeting outside.  It was the nicest day of the year, so people were happy to be out in the sun (at this time of year, the sun can stay out until after 11:00 at night).

After a quick interview with the local radio station, George and I told the people assembled in the parking lot about our plans for the expedition. (I’ll tell you more about that next time.) We kept it short so we could hear what these folks had to say about the changes they’ve witnessed in recent years, and it was truly eye-opening.  Many of them were Aleuts, indigenous Alaskans who have been living off the Bering Sea for 10,000 years.  They were dismayed that the days of catching everything they needed right off shore seemed to be ending, as people had to go farther and farther out to catch fish that seemed to be getting smaller and smaller in size. They were upset that trawlers were operating right in their bay, and wondered aloud if we could help kick the trawlers out into deeper water. People also talked about global warming, sharing observations about delayed salmon runs and changes in bird migrations.

Despite being locked out of the building, people from America’s largest fishing community stood and talked with us in the parking lot for two hours. All of us had more questions than answers, but we started discussing a few potential solutions too.  All in all, not a bad beginning!

Now George and I are back in Anchorage, pulling the rest of the team together and getting ready to meet the boat on her way out to the Pribilof Islands.

-John 

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